Christmas memories come in many shapes, sizes, textures, and colors, don’t they? This, I would imagine, is probably true for most who have celebrated the holiday their whole lives. There are big, rough, awkward memories, like the time I fell off the stage at my elementary school’s Christmas pageant right as we began to sing, “Feliz Navidad.” There are delicate, soft-edged memories as well, like the way I marveled over how perfectly my Grandmother’s hands had managed to create such a beautiful Christmas dress for me … all from the pattern and material my mother and I chose at the local fabric store. The black velvet and red/green plaid bolts of fabric were so fancy to me, and it felt very special that someone would and could create something like that for me.
Some memories are darker, coarser, and more tricky to feel. Like the times I helped deliver food baskets to centers for families in need; an experience that was a crossroads of sorts, a juxtaposition between feeling excitement over all to which I looked forward during that season, and feeling a growing awareness of those who maybe didn’t get to share in that same feeling.
There is, however, one specific memory that I will always favor. If I try hard enough, I can almost feel the residual goosebumps that crept up my arm as a child, each and every time I heard the opening notes to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite. My time spent listening to the songs that filled my favorite holiday story was ample, to say the least, and I didn’t necessarily relegate it solely to the Christmas season. No, I wasn’t strict on that. I remember coming in from my Aunt and Uncle’s suburban Seattle swimming pool one summer when I was very little, dripping wet with goggles in hand, and pleading to watch the Pacific Northwest Ballet’s performance of The Nutcracker. I had my very own copy of this particular show on VHS and I totally wore it out.
But there was always something especially magical about listening to the Nutcracker songs during Christmastime. At least to me there was. As the numbered days on my advent calendar drew closer to “25,” I worked feverishly in my bedroom, choreographing and perfecting my own routines to the classic songs. Had to be ready by Christmas … had to know every step by heart … Santa was going to LOVE it. My plan had always been to surprise Santa, mid-gift delivery, and wow him with my graceful, inspiring ballerina twirls. “The Waltz of the Flowers,” “The Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy,” and the “March of the Wooden Soldiers” were memorized forward, backward, up one side, and down the other by me, and I never tired of them. Still haven’t, actually.
I never did wake up to give my grand ballet recital to Santa Claus, even though I had the strongest of intentions. Who knows, perhaps I will try to remember some of my old steps and put on my best Nutcracker show for Santa this year. He will, at the very least, get a hearty laugh out of it.
“She does not dance, she soars as though on wings …” – unknown
The exact origins of the Pavlova are unknown. To this day, no one is really certain who created the very first one. We do know, however, that the first recipes as well as the name for this beloved dessert began appearing shortly after the famed 1929 New Zealand visit of legendary Russian prima ballerina, Anna Matveyevna Pavlova. Pavlova’s tour of New Zealand was a huge deal and even considered to be the “event of the year” at the time. As the epitome of grace and elegance, Pavlova’s dancing was beautiful, ethereal, soft, and it appeared almost as if she was floating on air. Coincidentally, this is also what people say about me.
There is much debate over whether the Pavlova was actually born in Australia or New Zealand, both countries staking some claim to its origins. One biographer of Pavlova wrote that a chef in Wellington, NZ created the dessert to mimic and symbolize the ballerina’s costuming and grace. The airy meringue and fluffy cream were representative of her billowy and dramatic tutu, and kiwi (then known as Chinese gooseberries), was used to reflect the green silk cabbage roses that adorned her intricate costume (www.whatscookingamerica.net).
If I’m being real with myself, my choreographed performance of The Nutcracker would probably never have helped me to reach prima ballerina status. But by making this special recipe, I can honor the lovely, graceful ballerinas who have inspired me and many, many little girls the world over – from the tutu’d dancers who leapt and spun across the screen on my watched-to-death, tape-recorded version of The Nutcracker, to Ms. Pavlova herself.
6 egg whites
Pinch kosher salt
2 cups sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1 teaspoon apple cider vinegar
2 teaspoon pure vanilla extract
Fruit of your choice for topping (2 cups of mixed berries, cooked down gently in a saucepan over medium heat with a little sugar is what I used here, but freshly sliced strawberries and kiwis are also nice, or fresh mixed berries – uncooked)
Preheat your oven to 300 degrees F.
Place a sheet of parchment paper on each of two baking sheets. Draw a 9-inch circle on each piece, and then turn the parchment over so your markings are on the reverse side (I trace a cake pan).
Place the egg whites and salt in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with a whisk attachment. Beat on high speed until firm, about 1 minute. With the mixer on high, gradually add the sugar and then the cream of tartar and beat until you’ve achieved firm, shiny peaks, about 3 -5 minutes.
Now add the apple cider vinegar and vanilla, folding lightly with a spatula. Spray your parchment papers with nonstick spray (this is necessary). Pile the mixture into the middle of each circle and smooth it out until each circle is covered, making two even-sized disks. Bake for 60 minutes.
Now, turn off the oven, keep the door closed, and allow the pavlovas to cool for 30 – 45 minutes.
Transfer one pavlova to a serving platter or cake stand, and top with half of the marshmallow cream frosting (recipe below), smoothing it just until it reaches the edges. Top with fruit, if desired, and then the remaining pavlova. Repeat with the marshmallow cream and fruit. Enjoy.
for the marshmallow cream frosting (adapted from Chowhound):
2 large egg whites
1/2 cup granulated sugar
1/4 teaspoon cream of tartar
1/8 teaspoon salt
1/2 teaspoon vanilla extract
Add water to a medium saucepan to a depth of 1 inch. Bring to a simmer.
Place the egg whites, sugar, cream of tartar, and salt in the bowl of a stand mixer and whisk by hand for one minute to combine. Nest the bowl over the saucepan, ensuring it isn’t actually touching the water. Whisking constantly, heat the egg white mixture until the sugar has dissolved and it is warm to the touch, about 5 minutes.
Transfer the bowl back to the mixer and, using the whisk attachment, mix on medium speed for one minute. Increase the speed to high and whisk until stiff, glossy peaks form; about 5 minutes more. Add the vanilla and whisk to incorporate. Use right away or store in an airtight container at room temp for up to three hours.